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McBaine: To grow and prosper, Utah needs ‘critical mass’ of women in leadership

First Published      Last Updated Mar 25 2017 03:00 pm

Kathryn Allen's decision to run against Rep. Jason Chaffetz as his Democratic opponent is only one example of a growing national trend: women stepping up to run for political office. Since Donald Trump's election to office, groups that work with women considering a political campaign report an intense level of interest not seen in at least 25 years.

With Utah ranking among the states with lowest representation of elected female officials, Allen's decision will hopefully be a harbinger of more female candidates emerging in the coming years.

The presence of women in political bodies has proven to change outcomes and priorities, often challenging groupthink or breaking up stalemates. Brigham Young University professor Christopher Karpowitz and Princeton University professor Tali Mendelberg showed in their book, "The Silent Sex," that decisions measurably change when women are involved in caucuses and other political bodies.




Famously, in 2013, the 20 female senators came together to put partisan interests aside and restart negotiations during the government shutdown, when few of their male counterparts would even speak to each other. In fact, 30 percent seems, based on research, to be a magic number for women's influence to affect decisions. One woman in 10 is a token, two are seen to be a conspiratorial pair, but three out of 10 is the "critical mass" for women's voices to be less exceptional and more integral.

More recently, Karpowitz joined with Quin Monson and Jessica Preece, also of BYU, to study the effect of party leaders' messages in affecting female candidates success when they do run for office. "Women are dramatically underrepresented in legislative bodies, and most scholars agree that the greatest limiting factor is the lack of female candidates (supply). However, voters' subconscious biases (demand) may also play a role, particularly among conservatives," the authors write. Their experiment concluded that "party leaders' efforts to stoke both supply and demand (and especially both together) increase the number of women elected … Simple interventions from party leaders can affect the behavior of candidates and voters and ultimately lead to a substantial increase in women's descriptive representation."

Here in Utah, groups such as Real Women Run work to increase the "supply" of female candidates by educating women on the process of running for office. Utah's history of women in politics runs deep. Utah was the first state to have a female state representative, Martha Hughes Cannon. And suffrage leader Emmeline B. Wells stated in 1897, "[The work of governing] can never be done well by one half of the human family; it is the opinion of all who think deeply that men and women must do the work together, and unitedly." Honoring this legacy means supporting efforts to increase the "supply" and also stoking "demand" within our state by encouraging not only party leaders but voters to support candidates who will bring new perspectives to our lawmaking by virtue of representing the other half of the human family.

A similar dynamic is at play within the corporate world. In Utah, only 8 percent of board seats are filled by women, and women account for 18 percent of corporate executives. Neither of these figures indicate we've reached a "critical mass" of female input in our business landscape. In a cautionary tale, Sallie Krawcheck, former CEO of CitiGroup, cites the lack of diversity in decision-making bodies as a primary catalyst of the 2008 financial crisis. The "false comfort of agreement," she explains, that came from Wall Street leadership comprised of men from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds led to blinding and debilitating groupthink.

Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, recently explained the benefits of achieving critical mass of women. "Employing more women at all levels of a company, from new hires to senior leaders, creates a virtuous cycle. Companies become more attuned to the needs of their female employees, improving workplace culture while lowering attrition. They escape a cycle of men mostly hiring men. And study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better outcomes, more innovative solutions, less groupthink, better stock performance and G.D.P. growth."

As Utah, especially under Gov. Gary Herbert, seeks to increase its appeal as a pro-business state, we would do well to support women who bring us closer to critical mass in all of our leadership and decision making bodies.

Neylan McBaine is the CEO of the Seneca Council, a gender workplace consultancy, and a founder of Better Days 2020, a celebration of Utah's suffrage history.

 

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